Concert Review: Julianna Barwick
Written by: Dan Willis
I got my friend to take the above photo. It features me and a delightfully good-natured musician named Julianna Barwick. It was taken after her performance at the Andy Warhol Museum on February 8, 2014 as part of their Sound Series. For the uninformed, she is an ambient vocalist, eternally plagued in criticism by words like ‘ethereal’ and ‘haunting’. Live, she constructs towering, pristine choral loops one layer at a time. What little lyrics there are cannot be deciphered. Blocky piano chords or rustic fingerpicking samples make occasionally appearances, but the centerpiece of her music is always her majestic voice.
In the moments leading up to the photo, I nervously asked Ms. Barwick for permission which she graciously permitted me, and thinking it presumptuous to put my hand around her shoulder first, I regrettably assumed the charmed-schoolgirl position you see above. In truth, I was a little bit confused, and here’s why. Most ambient musicians choose to root themselves in one of two places: the sentimental and earthy place inhabited by microminimalists like Stars of the Lid, and the icy, cosmic realm of synth wizards like Tangerine Dream. I had always classified Julianna Barwick as the former until this performance. So afterwards, my view of her music was off-balance. I wasn’t sure if she was a human anymore, she may have transformed into a mystical being of pure energy during her performance, and had not yet returned to her body. It forced me to reconsider her music, and in the process, actually helped me appreciate her a lot more.
She set up on far stage right; as the audience settled down she offered the venue a “thanks for having us”. I suppose a one-person choir is still a choir. Then she immediately launched into a blissful version of “Offing”, an a cappella number that sounds much more ominous on record, where it opens her most recent studio effort Nepenthe. As the song began, a projection faded on to the screen behind her, center stage. The twenty-foot tall circle smoothly scrolling through various photographs from space soon became the obvious spectacle. It was a refreshing angle to take on music that previously I had populated with slate, moss, trees and clouds. Space always seemed played out in ambient music to me, and albums like hers were a breath of fresh air. Even the moon that graces Nepenthe’s cover was to me a folkloric stone first, and a celestial body second. But once I realized that the synthetic reverb was making the small, cozy sit-down venue into an impossibly large airplane hangar, I began to let go of reality. I was getting lost in the music, forgetting that Julianna Barwick was a person, forgetting that I was a person, realizing how small humans are. It was a magical and intensely humbling experience, but it was beginning to make me surrender to sleep. So, over time I found myself focusing more on the shadowy, dwarfed figure that was producing the soundtrack than the various galaxies and gas planets she was soundtracking.
Watching her make gentle adjustments to her reverb pedals and equalizers made me realize just how much effort was going into her effortlessly enjoyable music. So I was forced to consider another angle; the person making this mystical, infinite, bodiless music was trapped in a physical, finite body. So, I began thinking about the performer instead of the performance. It’s been noted before that there is an innocent playfulness to her music, but it takes hard work and intelligence to execute that playfulness as well as she does. For example, her voice is incredibly polished. She may start a song by looping some fundamental tones in a husky contralto, but it’s not long before she starts exploring all her voice’s diverse capabilities, from rustically detuned, almost Appalachian-sounding close harmony, to evocative blue notes that she rolls off as if she’s approaching the upper limits of her range (before she goes considerably higher a few seconds later with the pinpoint accuracy of an operatic soprano). But what helps these songs reach their full emotional potential is the looping pedal, which allows all her disparate voices to harmoniously coincide. And once the loop seems to be completely saturated with beauty, she belts out improvised melodies that soar over it and just make it that much more beautiful.
Unfortunately, closely listening to each subsequent loop, and watching her masterfully mix each composition as it was performed meant I couldn’t lean back, close my eyes, and enjoy it in the spiritual, cosmic way I had before. But that’s the beauty of her music. She effortlessly reconciles the divinely barren outer reaches of space with the humble glory of tree bark and lichens. It doesn’t even matter if you’re an active or passive listener. She brings those two worlds into each other, and seeing her live just brings them even closer. At first, I found it jarring and counter-intuitive, which I am going to blame for my goofy appearance in the photograph. But in truth, it’s what makes Julianna Barwick so special. No wonder the moon is so important to her aesthetic. It’s mystical and otherworldly, but still visible from Earth.